Marc-André Hamelin at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

I’m just back from seeing Marc-André Hamelin in recital, and a little write-up feels necessary.

The last time I saw him was, if not a damp squib exactly, then not the rollercoaster ride I’d been expecting. I’m amazed to find it was more than four years ago, in February 2007, also at the QEH. He played three late sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert. Incontrovertibly some of the greatest music ever written, but just too earnest a programme for my taste, it turned out. Tonight promised to be more my kind of thing, and looked more like a typical Hamelin programme – Haydn, Schumann, Wolpe, Debussy and Liszt.

Robert Schumann

It was Carnaval that was the catalyst for my buying the ticket, as if I needed any persuading to see this mercurial man in concert once more. I’d heard it live once before, at the Bath Festival about 10 years ago, and against my expectations at that. Richard Goode had been taken ill, and so John Lill stepped heroically into his shoes with a programme of Schumann and Chopin. I didn’t know the piece, and didn’t greatly enjoy it, which probably wasn’t helped by my sitting at the back of a long room with no tiered seating, meaning I could see nothing whatsoever.

I’m not surprised I didn’t get it when I was a teenager. I think Carnaval is a piece that rewards close analytical study exponentially. The more one comes to understand its ingenious construction, particularly in terms of melody, the more one comes to appreciate and love it. In the years since that first recital, I have studied it fairly meticulously and written dodgy university essays on it, and I continue to learn new things about it. I hadn’t quite realised until tonight, though, what a feat of endurance a performance of it must be. Any pianist is likely to require time to recover after playing it through, which may account for its position immediately before the interval in Hamelin’s programme.

Alfred Cortot

At times in the Schumann and the Haydn that preceded it, I felt some slight concerns about tempi, specifically to do with undue acceleration within fast passages. Carnaval in particular almost goads the performer into playing as fast as possible, and the failure of any pianist to keep this temptation in check can make all the difference between a phrase being dashed off with élan and thrown in the dustbin. Hamelin sailed close to the wind here, but by and large got away with it. He gave the most delightful performance of ‘A.S.C.H-S.C.H.A (Lettres dansantes)’ I can imagine, and his way of coaxing out the melody at the start of ‘Réplique’ made me think of Cortot, though with more right notes.

(Incidentally, this expectation of note-perfection from professional classical musicians in live performance is quite a recent development, and not one I am entirely in sympathy with. One risks losing sight of the wood for the trees if one focuses solely on the notes. Hamelin hit a few bum notes tonight, but they didn’t affect the overall impression his performance made. Listen to Cortot and Thibaud’s 80-year-old recording of the Franck violin sonata. No musician today would dream of releasing a record of such a performance. There are splashes all over the place, but their sheer musicianship astonishes, and there is no recording of the piece I think more highly of. Read Robert Philip’s book Performing Music in the Age of Recording – it’s fascinating on how the growth of recorded sound has altered the listener’s expectations over the past century.)

Marc-André Hamelin

If I had reservations about the first half, the second was quite staggering. I love that Hamelin persists in programming music by composers who are not simply difficult but also obscure alongside the mainstream canon. The Passacaglia from Stefan Wolpe’s op. 23 set of serialist pieces is something I am delighted to have been introduced to. It recalls the people you would expect it to – Schoenberg above all, perhaps, though Wolpe’s textures are fuller than those in Schoenberg’s piano music, and if there was one single piece it brought to mind it was Poulenc’s delicious Thème Varié, itself a theme and variations rather than a passacaglia, but sharing with the Wolpe certain structural similarities in its juxtaposition of different dance-like movements, and a sudden disarming tenderness that one expects from Poulenc but maybe doesn’t from Wolpe.

Three Debussy preludes followed in dazzling performances – ‘La Puerta del Vino’, ‘Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses’ and ‘Feux d’artifice’. I know the first book of preludes well, but not the second, which is quite inexcusable. Time to get properly acquainted with my copy of the Steven Osborne recording, I think.

And then it was Liszt time. Every pianist feels compelled to play Liszt this year, but Hamelin plays it constantly anyway. If you have a spare 12 minutes, have a look at this (wow). Tonight, however, it was the Reminiscences de Norma. Of Liszt’s many suits, one of my favourites is as a transcriber and paraphraser, and this is the ideal source material for the Liszt treatment. No offence to Bellini fans, but Liszt can only make it better – and does. Though I was taken aback to hear a primitive version of the Last of the Summer Wine theme tune early on. Maybe Hazlehurst wasn’t the visionary genius we all thought he was. This was the sort of performance that makes one realise why Hamelin is described so often not as a virtuoso but as a super-virtuoso, though I’m sure it’s an appellation he shuns. My pulse quickened, and I found myself gasping involuntarily, not quite able to believe what was going on before my eyes.

After a piece like that, what could anyone play for an encore? His choice could not have been more perfect. I heard the first couple of notes and sank with joy deep into my seat. It was this.

Anyway, not a bad night, all in all. And so to bed.

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